Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest improves on its prequel in every way and produces one of the best sidescrolling games of all time
Under the light of the character’s lengthy exposure on the platforming genre, it is easy to take for granted the wonders the introduction of the Donkey Kong Country franchise did for its titular simian. Once relegated to an arcade gameplay structure that gained multiple renditions due to its importance to Nintendo’s history, Donkey Kong – under the guidance of an inspired Rareware – found, on the franchise, a way to extend his legacy past the role of a barrel-throwing villain. By taking the reins of his destiny and starring on a game of his own, he escaped a possible limbo and the stigma of being remembered as a side character. Additionally, he solidified his position as, more than a complement to Mario’s sidescrolling antics, a rival to the plumber.
Donkey Kong Country 2 is, as its title plainly indicates, the second step on that journey, and it is a landmark in more ways than one can count, for – aside from introducing various elements that would become vital in the long run – it marks the franchise’s very peak, and the one instance where it might have actually risen above its Mushroom Kingdom counterpart. It starts out by borrowing the borderline unbelievable pre-rendered visuals its predecessor achieved through the use of the Silicon Graphics workstation, a technological achievement that supported both the use of 3-D effects throughout the game – mainly on the character’s sprites, and impressively detailed animation.
Even though the game does look better from a technical standpoint, especially regarding the backgrounds and effects, hence showing a more profound mastery of the hardware, its greatest improvement is artistic. Diddy’s Kong Quest uses a much wider palette of colors and explores scenarios that are far more whimsical, therefore lending the game a more appealing look. The standard caves, ruins, and jungles of Donkey Kong Country are replaced by pirate ships, volcanoes with bubbling lava, bee hives, decadent amusement parks, ghostly woods, mazes of thorny bramble, and more.
What truly makes the title standout both within the franchise and the genre itself, though, are the dark and urgent undertones that the game carries. The adventure is triggered when Donkey Kong, while relaxing by the beach, is taken away by the Kremlings. Led by King K. Rool, who reasons that stealing the Kong family’s banana hoard will be far easier with the main hero out of the equation, they give the remaining members of the clan two choices: hand over their precious treasure or never see the monkey again. Diddy Kong, however, joined by his girlfriend Dixie, carve out a third option, to rescue DK themselves, and so the quest begins.
Diddy’s heroism is unanimously doubted, and the game accurately captures the almost impossible nature of the endeavor that throws two kids against an organized army of humanoid crocodiles. That vibe is broadcasted perfectly by the game’s often ominous overworld design, as the settings on which the levels are organized are nothing but extremely threatening, and the urgent tune that constantly plays on the world’s map as the pair moves between the stages. It is a very special case of a game whose colorful looks and cartoonish plot are able to let out a truly serious, sinister, and dangerous atmosphere.
Much of those three qualities are tightly connected to the soundtrack. Diddy’s Kong Quest holds what is the very best array of songs to ever grace a game on a Nintendo system. It is, by a considerable margin, the masterpiece of David Wise’s brilliant career, and there is not a single tune in the bunch that falls even a few inches below the emblematic bar.
By merging traditional melodies with instrumental noises that mimic sound effects pertaining to each level’s theme, Wise builds extremely rich soundscapes within the confines of the limited hardware. It is truly no exaggeration to say that players will, undoubtedly, eventually pause the gameplay to just take in the musical greatness that resides in Donkey Kong Country 2, and be filled with a weird sense of joy when having to restart a level just because they will get to hear a tune for a longer period of time.
Diddy and Dixie traverse the levels as a duo, with players controlling the current leader of the group. Each monkey is lost with a single hit, but punctually placed barrels can be used to recover the one that is missing. That dynamic drives the game’s sense of tension through the roof, as gamers will be always either one mistake away from utter failure or on the verge of falling into such scenario. Luckily, halfway through each level, an always well-placed starred barrel serves as a pleasant checkpoint to keep frustration to a minimum.
Such relief is necessary because Diddy’s Kong Quest is hard, and it can soar to brutal altitudes for those who want to target full completion. The difficulty curve is flawless, as levels get progressively harder and every new world that comes around presents a considerable leap in difficulty, therefore creating a constant sense of challenge without ever being maddening or seemingly unsurmountable.
Like it happened on the original, where Donkey and Diddy had clear distinctions, the same applies to the new pair. Diddy is far more agile and his jumps offer greater maneuverability and height; meanwhile, Dixie is slightly slower but can use her ponytail as a helicopter to slow down falls and precisely control her eventual landing spot. The controls and physics work masterfully, and the possibility to switch between the characters proves of great strategic value as players can choose what monkey is more suitable for each situation they encounter.
Diddy and Dixie add a new weapon to their arsenal through the team-up ability. By riding on one another the monkey that is on top can be thrown to either hit enemies like a boomerang sort of weapon or reach places that would otherwise be impossible to get to.
The game is organized into seven thematically distinct worlds that, with the exception of the last one, hold between five and six levels, a creative and decently challenging boss battle, and a few points of assistance provided by other members of the Kong family. Wrinkly, the grandma, represents save points; Cranky, the grandfather, gives, in exchange for coins, tips regarding where to find secrets in each of the world’s levels; Funky, the uncle, provides transportation between worlds that have already been cleared; while Swanky runs a fun question-based game show that awards players with a number of extra lives that is correspondent to the difficulty of the riddles.
Thankfully, for the sake of dynamism and variety, the themes of the stages are not restricted to that of the world within which they are contained. In a smart turn that proves the well-designed nature of the overworld, environmental distinctions on the general area where a level is located indicate a different theme; for example, a pirate ship stuck in the muddy swamp world will lead to a stage aboard a sunken vessel rather than one set on a marsh. It is a detail that further highlights the differences between levels in the same world, making them far more distinctive.
Without exception, all of the stages are bursting at the seams with creativity, and the mechanics explored by each one of them are extremely clever. Aside from making use of Diddy and Dixie’s set of skills and displaying charming enemies that pose varied threats, levels also gain an extra boost in their design due to the fact the game is filled with animal buddies. What was once a rare sight in the original Donkey Kong Country, becomes – for the best – extremely commonplace in Diddy’s Kong Quest.
Rambi the Rhinoceros, with his sheer power; Enguarde the Swordfish, with his underwater agility; and Squawks the Parrot, which now can carry both Kongs as he flies through dangerous terrain all make a return. Meanwhile, Rattly the Rattlesnake and her glorious high jumps; Squitter the Spider and his web weaving platform-creating ability are introduced and, like the veteran animals, create very unique and interesting platforming scenarios that players must tackle.
Besides bananas, golden coins, and the K-O-N-G letters, which when collected award players with an extra life, each stage now has two kinds of very valuable collectibles that are key to anyone looking for full completion of the adventure. Given Donkey Kong Country lacked any item of the sort, those two elements set Diddy’s Kong Quest apart from its predecessor, making its replay value and difficulty level rise high.
Firstly, there is the Donkey Kong Coin, which is hidden in progressively devious spots by Cranky Kong in order to measure Diddy’s heroism. And secondly, there are the Kremkoins, which are found at the end of very fun mini-game like bonus rooms which ask players to do a certain varied task, such as killing all enemies or traversing a dangerous segment, within the allotted time.
Given there is one Donkey Kong Coin and anywhere between one and three bonus rooms on each stage, locating those items demands a whole new level of careful exploration by the players, hence transforming the game from a head-on platformer to one that requires a more meticulous approach. As a nice helping touch, the game indicates the Donkey Kong Coin and the Kremkoins for a certain level have been collected by, respectively, placing an icon and an exclamation mark besides the stage’s name.
Although finding all Donkey Kong Coins has no practical reward other than the satisfaction of being named the greatest videogame hero of all time by Cranky Kong and driving the completion percentage up to the elusive 102%, Kremkoins are different. For every 15 of those, Diddy and Dixie gain access to a level located on a secret world of brutal difficulty that houses the game’s true last boss and ending; a huge and pleasant addition that drives the gameplay time past the twelve-hour mark.
The sole issue that hits Diddy’s Kong Quest derives from its save points. In general, they are located halfway into each of the worlds, meaning that players will only be able to save their progress after clearing two or three stages.
The unfortunate part is that, differently from Super Mario World, clearing a world does not automatically save the game. Therefore, if by any bad turn of events, one runs out of lives before reaching a world’s save point, they will be sent all the way back to the halfway mark of the previous world rather than to the beginning of the world they are currently on. The game might be relatively generous with handing out lives, but most players will most likely eventually fall into such a situation where the punishment is taken a little bit too far, hence generating frustration.
Yet, there is just no way around it: Donkey Kong Country 2 is one the, if not the, best sidescrolling platformers of all time. It checks all requirements with style: it has a great amount of extra content, a daunting but fair level of difficulty, unforgettable enemies that are fondly remembered until this very day, good boss battles, clever mechanics and creative levels that make full use of them. What takes it over the top, though, are its haunting atmosphere that combines cartoonish inspirations with a dark quest of urgent nature and a soundtrack for the ages. Donkey Kong Country 2 proved that, more than mere competition for the plumber, Rareware had the capacity to craft games to top Nintendo’s best efforts.